Booker T. Washington’s Secret Litigation Donations

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1903

Born into slavery, Booker T. Washington went on to become the best-known African American of his generation, primarily as the leader of the Tuskegee Institute, which prepared thousands of black students for skilled occupations. Washington was a prolific fundraiser and received support from Northern industrialists who admired his self-help philosophy and his practical organizing skills. Among his “sainted philanthropists” were Andrew Carnegie, Collis Huntington, John Rockefeller, Julius Rosenwald, and Jacob Schiff.

Some critics, however, particularly modern ones, have complained that Washington’s reluctance to stir up social conflict was too accommodating. Long after he died in 1915, though, historians discovered that Washington had another non-public face. He was also a philanthropist himself, secretly making personal donations to fund legal challenges to Jim Crow laws.

Washington quietly supported the Giles cases of 1903 and 1904 that took on black disenfranchisement. They went all the way to the Supreme Court before ultimately failing in their claims for black voting rights. In the Rogers case of 1904, Washington supported a winning argument. The Supreme Court ordered the retrial of a convicted black man because qualified blacks had been deliberately kept off the jury.

Major legal and political advances for black Americans would not arrive until decades later, but the modest gains of Booker T. Washington’s hidden philanthropy gave him and others solace. He credited the Rogers decision, for example, with giving “the colored people a hopefulness that means a great deal.”

  • Louis Harlan, “The Secret Life of Booker T. Washington,” Journal of Southern History, Vol. 37, No. 3 (August 1971)